#13Hercules+and+Antaeus

In Greek mythology Antaeus is a giant whose mother is the earth (Gaia) and whose father is the sea (Poseidon). Antaeus’ strength comes from contact with the earth. Seamus Heaney writes in North (1975), in the voice of Antaeus:

When I lie on the ground

I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.

During his twelve labors Hercules crosses paths with Antaeus in north Africa; the two fight, and Hercules figures out the source of the giant’s strength. He picks Antaeus up and holds him off the ground, and then crushes him in a bear hug.

We can understand Antaeus’ story as an allegory about our own source of strength: we are vulnerable without the guidance and empowerment that comes from regaining contact with our mothers, our origins. I think of Dana Johnson’s brilliant story “Markers” (read it) in her collection Break Any Woman Down (2001) (read it!); the story ends with the narrator, Avery, alone and disoriented: “I barely know where I am. I might be dying,” she says. Then she imagines driving home, to see her mother:

When I got to your house I’d ring the doorbell, even though I have a key. Maybe you’d be surprised to see me, stand in the doorway and forget to let me in. The happiness on your face would shame me. You’d say, “What?” Pull your nightgown tight across your chest. “Did you forget something? Is everything OK?”

“Mama,” I’d say finally. “I’m lost.”

In the classical myth of Antaeus, all of earth has the animating force of the mother. Johnson’s version of the myth is slightly different: in the details of Avery’s imagined drive home— I’d get on the 101 freeway… I’d make a right and go down Montana, where my elementary, junior high, and high school are all in a row…your house, Mama, in the center of all the houses on the dead end— we see the mother animate the earth around her, from her daughter’s schools, to her home in the center of the dead end street, to her electrified doorway. Avery gains strength simply imagining herself on her route home.

There are meaningful places from my past, like my childhood home, but when I am alone in them they seem to dissipate like visible breath. In my version of the Antaeus myth it is a few forms of living earth— Gwendolyn, Anders, Virgil— that restore me. They are not like the earth for Antaeus, or your house, Mama, because they move around on their own. But because they move I can call my forms to me, and they will come of their own accord to restore me.

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